Thursday, December 08, 2005

The White Tower

We began Saturday with a visit to the combination fortress / palace / prison that is the Tower of London. The tower itself, built by the Normans, turned out to be smaller than I had imagined (interesting in itself as an indication of the economic standing of the rulers of the day), but none the less impressive in its history and surprisingly beautiful in its details, particularly the small Norman chapel. A cheery Beefeater led us about the walks and greens within the walls and gave us a very entertaining (and bloody) history of the tower.

Actually, the history of the tower isn’t quite as bloody as one expect, given the times it has seen. Quite a few prisoners ended their days with a walk to the nearby execution block, but quite a few of those killings could almost be classed as “self defence” on the part of the monarch of the day (the job used to be even more dangerous). Also, they obviously didn’t like to bear grudges, since many of the executed were buried in the chapel which still stands in the grounds (included a wife or two of Henry VIII). Apparently, the dreaded dungeons were used to torture a total of 83 prisoners over their 800 year-long history – not a very glorious record, but, at only 8.3 prisoners per century, probably a much smaller total than most dungeons of that vintage can boast.

The tower itself has no more prisoners, save for the eight ravens in the grounds (six by royal tradition required, two by cautious Beefeaters for backup provided) and the jewels sequestered within massive Norman walls and immense steel doors. There are robes of state, crowns that defined bling half a millennia before the word itself was coined, and a sceptre bearing Cullinan I, the world’s largest cut diamond (530 carats in weight, or, in real people’s measurements, the size of a hen’s egg). You get a glimpse of the lighter side of royal life too – a gold punchbowl large enough to bathe children and sufficiently tasteless in its gleaming for any aspiring Mrs. Bucket. Definitely worth a visit, if one can leave with one’s head.

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